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Allies of Russia's Navalny defiant in face of possible extremism charges

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Leonid Volkov, chief of staff of Navalny's team, speaks during a news conference with "Cinema for Peace" founder Jaka Bizilj after Bizilj's foundation arranged for an ambulance aircraft to head to Omsk to pick up Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Berlin, Germany August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny delivers a speech during a rally to demand the release of jailed protesters, who were detained during opposition demonstrations for fair elections, in Moscow, Russia September 29, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo

Close allies of jailed Alexei Navalny (pictured), Russian President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critic, pledged on Sunday to continue their actions despite the prospect of being outlawed under extremism charges.

Moscow City Court is expected to rule in a few days on a request from a Moscow prosecutor to officially outlaw the backbone of Navalny's political movement - the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) - on the grounds that it is an extremist group.

Such a ruling, if it happens, would give the authorities the legal power to arrest and jail his supporters and block their bank accounts simply for being activists in the foundation.

Leonid Volkov, chief of staff of Navalny's team, said on Sunday the group would continue its work, including investigations into corruption.

"We are not going to give up," Volkov said in an online broadcast. Volkov lives in Lithuania.

Navalny was jailed in February for 2-1/2 years on charges he called politically motivated. On Friday, he said he would start gradually ending a hunger strike after getting medical care. Read more

Navalny's allies have pressed ahead with his "smart voting" strategy, supporting politicians outside of pro-Kremlin United Russia party they believe to be well placed to beat the ruling party candidates and urging Russians to vote for them.

Russians are set to vote in general elections in September.

"We have time, desire and strength to restructure our work, to get the smart voting to the elections and beat the United Russia," said Volkov.

Defence

Kremlin says NATO membership for Ukraine would be 'red line'

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The Kremlin said on Thursday (17 June) that Ukrainian membership of NATO would be a "red line" for Moscow and that it was worried by talk that Kyiv may one day be granted a membership action plan, write Anton Zverev and Tom Balmforth, Reuters.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the remarks a day after US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks in Geneva. Peskov said the summit had been positive overall.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Monday (14 June) that he wanted a clear "yes" or "no" from Biden on giving Ukraine a plan to join the NATO. Read more.

Biden said Ukraine needed to root out corruption and to meet other criteria before it could join.

Peskov said Moscow was following the situation closely.

"This is something we are watching very closely and this really is a red line for us - as regards the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO," Peskov told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

"Of course, this (the question of a membership plan for Ukraine) raises our concerns," he said.

Peskov said that Moscow and Washington agreed at the Geneva summit that they needed to holds talks on arms control as soon as possible.

Biden and Putin agreed at the summit to embark on regular negotiations to try to lay the groundwork for future arms control agreements and risk reduction measures.

Russia's deputy foreign minister said earlier on Thursday (17 June) that Moscow expected those talks with Washington to start within weeks. He made the comments in a newspaper interview that was published on the foreign ministry's website on Thursday.

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Russia

Biden talks down Russia, spurs allies in bid to back Putin into a corner

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrive for the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland June 16, 2021. Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS

US President Joe Biden on his first foreign foray sought to cast Russia not as a direct competitor to the United States but as a bit player in a world where Washington is increasingly pre-occupied by China, write Trevor Hunnicutt and Simon Lewis.

Aides said Biden wanted to send a message that Putin was isolating himself on the international stage with his actions, ranging from election interference and cyber-attacks against Western nations to his treatment of domestic critics.

But Biden could struggle in a parallel attempt to stop the rot in US-Russia relations and deter the threat of nuclear conflict while also talking down Russia, some observers said.

"The administration wants to de-escalate tensions. It's not clear to me that Putin does," said Tim Morrison, a national security adviser during the Trump administration. "The only cards he has to play are those of the disruptor."

Officials on both sides had played down the chances of major breakthroughs at the talks, and they were right. None materialized.

But the two leaders pledged to resume work on arms control as well as cyber security and to look for areas of possible cooperation, signs of some hope for a relationship between two countries with little common ground of late.

Ties were already frayed when Biden, at the start of his administration, repeated his description of Putin as "a killer". That deepened a diplomatic rift that saw both countries withdraw their ambassadors from each others' capital.

Echoing an approach by former President Barack Obama, who called Russia a “regional power” after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Biden sought to cast Russia not as a direct competitor to the United States.

Speaking after his meeting with Putin, Biden said Russia wants "desperately to remain a major power".

"Russia is in a very, very difficult spot right now. They are being squeezed by China,” Biden said before boarding his plane out of Geneva, quipping that the Russians “don't want to be known as, as some critics have said, you know, the Upper Volta with nuclear weapons". Biden was referring to the former French West African colony, which changed its name to Burkina Faso.

Biden also pointed to the troubles of Russia’s economy and called out Putin on Russia’s detention of two Americans, and threats toward US government-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

American businessmen “don’t want to hang out in Moscow”, he said.

Matthew Schmidt, associate professor at the University of New Haven and a specialist on Russian and Eurasian affairs, said Biden was seeking to undermine Putin's importance on the global stage.

"The strategy is very simply to push Putin's buttons, but with some real facts," Schmidt said. "Backlash will happen anyways, regardless."

Putin, a former agent in Russia’s KGB security agency, lived through the fall of the Soviet Union, a humiliation for the nation that he has sought to right with increasingly aggressive foreign policy, as seen in the Crimea move and Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Biden arrived at the lakeside villa in Geneva where he met Putin on Wednesday on the back of meetings of the G7 group of nations and the NATO alliance.

A senior administration official said Biden’s approach to Russia was more likely to be successful because Biden met Putin straight after rallying allies around the principle of upholding a “rules-based international order” at a G7 meeting in Britain and talks with NATO members in Brussels.

“There was strong alignment on the basic proposition that we all need to defend … this order, because the alternative is the law of the jungle and chaos, which is in no one's interest,” the official said.

At home, Biden's Republican opponents quickly criticized Biden for failing to block a major Russian-backed natural gas pipeline being built in Europe.

US Senator Lindsay Graham, a frequent Republican critic of Biden, said he was disturbed to hear the president suggest Putin would be troubled by how other countries view him.

“It is clear to me that Putin could care less about how he's viewed by others and, quite frankly, would enjoy the reputation of being able to successfully interfere in the internal matters of other countries,” the South Carolina senator said.

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coronavirus

EU approval of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine delayed, sources say

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European Union approval of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine will be delayed because a 10 June deadline to submit data was missed, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters, diminishing the shot's prospects in the EU's pandemic response, write Andreas Rinke and Emilio Parodi.

One of the sources, a German government official, said the failure to provide the necessary clinical trial data to the EU medicines watchdog would postpone any go-ahead in the bloc until at least September.

"Approval of Sputnik will be delayed probably until September, maybe until the end of the year," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) had previously been expected to conclude its review of the Russian vaccine and issue a decision in May or June.

A second source said the 10 June cut-off date not been met and that the vaccine's developer, Russia's Gamaleya Institute, said it will file the requested data next week or at the latest at the end of the month.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which markets the vaccine, said the EMA review was on track.

"All of the information on the Sputnik V vaccine clinical trials has been provided and GCP (General Clinical Practice) review has been completed with positive feedback from the European Medicines Agency," the RDIF said.

"While it is up to EMA to decide on the timing of the approval procedure, the Sputnik V team expects the vaccine approval with the next two months," it added. EMA was not immediately available for comment.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has held talks to buy Sputnik V but has made any purchase contingent on EMA approval. Read more.

Frustrated by a sluggish immunisation campaign, some regional German states including Bavaria earlier this year flagged interest in placing orders for Sputnik V, but vaccination has since picked up speed.

Slovakia became the EU's second country after Hungary to start inoculating people with Sputnik V this month, despite lack of EU approval. Read more.

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